Ernest Boyce worked in the Russian mining industry but was recruited by British intelligence and was employed by MI6 during the First World War. In 1918 he was sent to Russia to join up with a small group of agents working under Robert Bruce Lockhart at the British Embassy in Petrograd. The head of MI6, Mansfield Smith-Cumming, wanted Boyce to be a “link man in Moscow, someone who could simultaneously be in contact with both John Scale (based in Stockholm) and the agents working undercover inside the country.” Boyce was described as “a silver-haired lieutenant with considerable experience in military sabotage”. The undercover agents included Francis Cromie, George Alexander Hill, Oswald Rayner, Stephen Alley and Cudbert Thornhill.
Sidney Reilly arrived in Russia in May 1918. As Robin Bruce Lockhart, the author of Reilly: Ace of Spies (1992), points out: “Reilly was eager to reach Moscow as soon as possible and only stayed long enough in Petrograd to make contact with Commander Ernest Boyce, the new head of the British SIS in Russia since the departure of Major Alley. Boyce was mainly concerned with intelligence operations against Germany and Reilly’s was an entirely independent assignment. Reilly made arrangements to use Boyce’s cipher staff in the British Consulate-General in Moscow.”
Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, decided to try and infiltrate this intelligence unit. Jan Buikis, a Soviet agent, made contact with Francis Cromie and requested a meeting with Robert Bruce Lockhart. On 14th August, 1918, Buikis and Colonel Eduard Berzin, met Lockhart. Berzin was the commander of a Lettish battalion in the Kremlin guard and told Lockhart that there was serious disaffection among the Lettish troops and asked for money to finance an anti-Bolshevik coup. Sidney Reilly was brought into the conspiracy and Berzin was given 1,200,000 rubles. This money was handed over to the Bolsheviks.
On 17th August, 1918, Moisei Uritsky, the Commissar for Internal Affairs in the Northern Region, was assassinated by Leonid Kannegisser, a young military cadet. Anatoly Lunacharsky commented: “They killed him. They struck us a truly well-aimed blow. They picked out one of the most gifted and powerful of their enemies, one of the most gifted and powerful champions of the working class.” The Soviet press published allegations that Uritsky had been killed because he was unravelling “the threads of an English conspiracy in Petrograd”.
Two weeks later Dora Kaplan attempted to assassinate Lenin. It was claimed that this was part of the British conspiracy to overthrow the Bolshevik government and orders were issued by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Cheka, to round up the agents based in British Embassy in Petrograd. On 31st August, 1918, Cromie was killed resisting arrest. According to Robin Bruce Lockhart: “The gallant Cromie had resisted to the last; with a Browning in each hand he had killed a commissar and wounded several Cheka thugs, before falling himself riddled with Red bullets. Kicked and trampled on, his body was thrown out of the second floor window.”
Ernest Boyce and Robert Bruce Lockhart were both arrested but Sidney Reilly had a lucky escape. He arranged to meet Cromie that morning. He arrived at the British Embassy soon after Cromie had been killed: “The Embassy door had been battered off its hinges. The Embassy flag had been torn down. The Embassy had been carried by storm.” Reilly now went into hiding and eventually managed to get back to London. Boyce initially was told he was going to be shot but was surprisingly released on 1st September.
Boyce worked as the Passport Control Officer in Tallinn before being appointed as MI6 station chief in Helsinki. The Bolshevik government decided to trick Sidney Reilly and Boris Savinkov into going back to the Soviet Union. As Christopher Andrew, the author of Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985) has pointed out: “Since 1922 the GPU had been plotting the downfall of both Reilly and Savinkov by operating a bogus anti-Bolshevik Front, the Monarchist Union of Central Russia (MUCR), better known as the Trust, designed to ensnare the remaining plotters against Bolshevik rule.”
Boyce wrote to Sidney Reilly asking him to meet the leaders of Monarchist Union of Central Russia in Moscow. In March 1925, Reilly replied: “Much as I am concerned about my own personal affairs which, as you know, are in a hellish state. I am, at any moment, if I see the right people and prospects of real action, prepared to chuck everything else and devote myself entirely to the Syndicate’s interests. I was fifty-one yesterday and I want to do something worthwhile, while I can.”
After a number of delays caused mainly by Reilly’s debt-ridden business dealings, he met Ernest Boyce in Paris before crossing the Finnish border on 25th September 1925. At a house outside Moscow two days later he had a meeting with the leaders of MUCR, where he was arrested by the secret police. Reilly was told he would be executed because of his attempts to overthrow the Bolshevik government in 1918.
According to the Soviet account of his interrogation, on 13th October 1925, Reilly wrote to Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of Cheka, saying he was ready to cooperate and give full information on the British and American Intelligence Services. Sidney Reilly’s appeal failed and he was executed on 5th November 1925.
According to Keith Jeffery, the author of MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service (2010), Boyce had sent Reilly into Russia without clearing the scheme with his superiors in London. “Boyce had to take some of the blame for the tragedy. Back in London, as recalled by Harry Carr, his assistant in Helsinki” he was “carpeted by the Chief for the role he had played in this unfortunate affair.”
In 1938 Alexander Orlov, a senior figure in Cheka, fled to France. He later moved to the United States. FBI agent Edward P. Gazur, who interviewed Orlov, claims that Boyce was a double agent and was paid for information about British agents and was responsible for betraying Sidney Reilly. This was published for the first time in Gazur’s book, Alexander Orlov: The FBI’s KGB General (2001). Nigel West has argued that “the reason why this hasn’t come out until now is that Orlov, who was not debriefed by British intelligence, never told anybody but Edward Gazur.”
Sidney Reilly was still in Petrograd when events turned sour. His plan to overthrow the Bolshevik Government had spun wildly out of control and he knew he would need his wits about him if he was to keep one step ahead of the Cheka.
He first realised that something was seriously awry when Captain Cromie, naval attaché at the British Embassy, failed to turn up to a secret rendezvous on the afternoon of 31 August. “Not like Cromie to be unpunctual,” observed Reilly.
After waiting for another fifteen minutes at the pre-agreed location, he decided to make his way towards the embassy. It was “a dangerous move” – for he risked being searched – “but I had brought it off successfully before.”
He turned into Vlademirovsky Prospect, only to be confronted by a group of men and women running towards him in panic. “They dived into doorways, into side-streets everywhere.”
Reilly was perplexed as to what was happening. A military car sped past, filled with Red Army soldiers. It was heading in the opposite direction to the crowd, racing towards the embassy. Reilly quickened his pace as he reached the end of Vlademirovsky Prospect. As he turned the corner, he immediately realised that something was seriously wrong.
“The Embassy door had been battered off its hinges. The Embassy flag had been torn down. The Embassy had been carried by storm.”
On the pavement outside there were several bloodstained corpses. Reilly glanced at them and noticed that they were not English. They were Russians, Bolsheviks, who he presumed to have been killed while storming the building.
It was to be some hours before Reilly discovered the grim details of what had taken place. Others had been rather closer to the action. Nathalie Bucknell, wife of one of the few remaining staff at the embassy, was in the passport office on the ground floor when she heard the crack of gunshots coming from upstairs. It was exactly 4.50 p.m. She poked her head into the entrance hall, only to hear more intense shooting and “terrible screams”. She was as frightened as she was puzzled; she had not heard any soldiers entering the building.
The embassy porter crept into the hall and peered nervously up the stairwell. He motioned for her to take cover. She did so just in time. As she crouched in the small lobby adjoining the hall, a group of men could be heard careering down the grandiose staircase. At its head was Captain Cromie, wildly firing his revolver. Behind him, and in hot pursuit, were Red Guards. They too were firing their guns.
Nathalie sank to her knees in fear. There was a constant crackle of gunfire as the shoot-out intensified and bullets began to ricochet off the marble walls and columns. She peeked through the keyhole just as one of the bullets hit its target. “Captain Cromie fell backwards on the last step.”
He was seriously wounded and clearly in need of urgent medical attention.
The Red Guards dashed into the street, seemingly confused by the lack of other gunmen. As they did so, a second group of soldiers came clattering down the stairs, equally dazed by the shoot-out. One of them paused for a moment to kick Cromie’s half-conscious body….
Nathalie could hear the sound of yet more soldiers on the first floor of the building; they were bawling to the embassy staff who had hid themselves away in fear of their lives. “Come out of the room, come out of the room, or we will open machine-gun fire on you.”
Nathalie was joined by her friend Miss Blumberg, who had taken refuge in one of the downstairs rooms. Together, the two women gingerly stepped into the hall in order to see what they could do for Captain Cromie. He was smeared with blood. “Bending over him, we saw his eyelids and lips move very faintly.”
As Miss Blumberg attempted to speak to him, a group of Red Guards reappeared and started shouting insults.
Pointing their revolvers at her, they called very rudely: “Come upstairs immediately or we will fire at you.”
The two women did not dare to argue; they were led up to the first floor with revolvers poking into their bodies. Nathalie saw graphic evidence of the shoot-out that had taken place. On the floor, lying in a pool of rapidly congealing blood, was the corpse of a Red Guard.
The two ladies were jostled into the Chancery room where Ernest Boyce, head of Mansfield Cumming’s operations inside Russia, was being held at gunpoint. “At that moment, the Red Commissary entered and told everyone that they must keep quiet with their hands up and that the Consulate was taken by the Red Guards.”
Miss Blumberg bravely asked if she could give the dying Cromie a glass of water. Her request was brusquely denied by the soldiers. The chaplain was treated with equal contempt when he asked to attend to the semi-conscious English captain.
The rest of the British staff were now brought into the Chancery and told that they were being held as prisoners. Most were still reeling from what had taken place. They knew of the assassination of Uritsky and of the attempt on Lenin’s life, but only Ernest Boyce was aware of Reilly’s planned coup and even he did not know that it had been exposed by the Cheka.
“The room was now full of soldiers and sailors who were most brutal in their behaviour,” wrote Nathalie. The porter was led through each room with a revolver pressed to his head. The guards said they would shoot him if he did not unlock every door and cupboard.
The hostages were held for several hours while the embassy was stripped of everything of value, including all its archives and secret documents. The staff were then marched down the stairs, passing the now-dead Captain Cromie, and taken to a nearby building. For the next fifteen hours, they were held prisoner and interrogated, one by one.
Nathalie overheard a soldier saying that five of them, including Boyce, were going to be shot. But the executions were inexplicably annuled before they could be carried out. At 11 a.m. on 1 September, all of the prisoners were informed that they were free to go. Bewildered as to why they were being released, but not daring to ask any questions, they gratefully made their way into the street.
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